Sunday, May 29, 2011

Luchino Visconti | Senso

by Douglas Messerli

Luchino Visconti and Suso Cecchi d'Amico (screenplay, based on the novella by Camillo Boito), Carlo Alianello, Giorgio Bassani, and Giorgio Prosperi (dialogue collaboration), Tennessee Williams and Paul Bowles (English-language dialogue version), Luchino Visconti (director) Senso / 1954, USA 1968

By an odd coincidence of Netflix timing, I saw this film, beautifully restored and recorded by Criterion, on the 145 anniversary, May 27, 2011, of the events that begin the film, a performance of Verdi's Il Travatore at La Fenice opera house in Venice. Wealthy and poor Venetians have gathered along with Austrian soldiers who control the city, as well as a few political provocateurs—relatives of the beautiful contessa Livia Serpieri—who shower leaflets demanding an end to Austrian rule and flowers in the color of the Italian flag upon the audience at the completion of Manrico's cry "To arms! To arms!" As soldiers attempt to suppress the agitators, words break out between an Austrian soldier, Franz Mahler (Farley Granger) and the countess' cousin, Robert Ussoni (Massimo Girotti), who challenges Mahler to a duel.

Frightened for Ussoni's survival, the countess (Alida Valli) seeks a meeting with the Austrian in an attempt to dissuade him from the duel, and is assured by Mahler that the event will not occur. At the close of the meeting she requests her husband to take her home, since she is not feeling well.

The source of this ill feeling, we already suspect, are the sensations aroused by the appearance and bearing of Mahler, whom we have already been told is the talk of Venice women. And soon after the two meet again, with unexpected and truly shocking consequences, as the countess wanders the streets of the violent city with the soldier all night. Any respectable woman would not dare to be out after curfew and would not possibly allow herself to be seen, yet the countess even goes further a few days later, when she shows up at the soldier's barracks in search of Mahler.

Despite her political affiliations, it is clear that countess Serpieri will abandon almost all of her values in search of love. Before long, the two spend days together in a small hotel, using her personal maid as an agent in her deceit.

Mahler, a seasoned paramour, is clearly less than an avid soldier, and seduces the countess partly through his seeming passivity and joy in "the details of the experience of love-making," the quiet beat of the wings of a fly or a moth and other small sensations. The countess, in her first true romance, abandons herself, instead, to the passion, almost losing consciousness in the act, and that is her continual dilemma: she has lost all sense of who and what she was. She no longer has a past.

When Mahler fails to meet her the next day, she again appears at the barracks, and is ready to reveal all to her husband. But the young man to whom she rushes, when told by the maid that someone has visited her, turns out to be her cousin, returned from exile, not Mahler. Her husband, who has followed, is accordingly relieved to discover someone he knows within rather than a stranger, a possible lover.

Ussoni gives her a box containing all the partisans' funds for safe keeping, as war between the Austrians and the nationalists, led by Garibaldi, breaks out. Ussoni and others lead the fight in the north. The countess and her household, meanwhile, retire to their country manor for protection. But the war has reached that area as well, Franz Mahler showing up her bedroom late one night.

At first, it appears that she has quelled her passion. "This is not Venice," she declares again and again, as if saying it were a incantation. Through trickery and deceit, however, Mahler wins her over, and before the end of the night has joined her in bed. The countess is now determined to hide Mahler in the granary, but when gunfire breaks out nearby, the men rush to see it better from the granary windows, the countess following in fear of her lover's discovery.

Mahler turns up again in her bedroom, having been served breakfast by her maid. We know the inevitable: to release him from the army and his need to leave her, the countess is willing to give up the partisan's treasure as a bribe for a willing doctor to declare Mahler unfit. The loss of those funds, indeed, ends with the Italian's defeat and her beloved cousin being shot.

Having now lost almost all self-worth, the Countess is utterly distressed when she hears, in a letter from Mahler, that she should not yet travel to Verona to see him. Determined to make the trip, nonetheless, she chances death, arriving in the city, exhausted and covered with dirt. At Mahler's apartment, she discovers a drunken sensualist in bed with a prostitute instead of her former hero. Mahler even recognizes himself now as a liar, a traitor, a cheat, and spits out his hate by calling attention to her blind abandonment of all and, most particularly, her loss of beauty and age.

Like a mad woman, she wanders the streets, finally reaching the Austrian army headquarters, where she reveals Mahler's deceit. The last images of Visconti's film show the formers soldier, hands tied behind him, being shot by his comrades.

As many critics have agreed, Senso does not just begin as an opera, but truly becomes one, sans singing and without major heroes. Visconti's characters are grand failures, the husband being an political opportunist, the handsome soldier a petty cad, the countess a deluded woman of the upper class. None are commendable. The heroes of this piece appear in the background, the Italian patriots, and fail in their efforts as well. Yet through his lush camera work, the layers of color revealing both the splendor and decay of this world, Visconti allows us to take in the details of the experience, immersing us in the sensations of sexual lust. It is probably that fact which kept this film from US shores for 14 years after its making, even that redone in English with dialogue by the ardent writers of decadence of the day, Tennessee Williams and Paul Bowles.

Los Angeles, May 29, 2011

Friday, May 27, 2011

Béla Tarr | Werckmeister harmóniák (Werckmeister Harmonies)

by Douglas Messerli

László Krasnahorkai and Béla Tarr (screenplay, based on his fiction The Melancholy of Resistance), Péter Dobai, Gyuri Dósa Kiss, and György Fehér (additional dialogue), Béla Tarr (director) Werckmeister harmóniák / 2000

Released in 2000 for the Toronto and Chicago International Film Festivals, Béla Tarr's masterful Werckmeister Harmonies appeared (at least on US soil) the same year as the English language translation of Krasnahorkai's book upon which it was based, The Melancholy of Resistance (reviewed on my Exploringfictions site.

Although the author was very much involved with the film version, serving as the co-writer of the screenplay, Tarr has made, at least to my imagination, a very different work from the dark, broodingly metaphysical fiction. The film begins with one of the best scenes of all of literature, the appearance of János Valuska, who proceeds to take the drunken patrons of the soon-to-be-closed bar through the galactic patterns of a solar eclipse. Valuska, who plods throughout both the film and fiction about the small Hungarian town, with newspaper bag on his shoulder, face to the ground, is fascinated by the heavens, and explains the planetary motions every chance he gets. Like a mad dance choreographer, Valuska positions the men as planets, Sun, Earth, Moon, spinning them around each other with the patience of a theater director attempting to prompt children into synchronized movement.

János Valuska: You are the sun. The sun doesn't move, this is what it
does. You are the Earth. The Earth is here for a start, and then the
Earth moves around the sun. And now, we'll have an explanation that
simple folks like us can also understand, about immortality. All I ask
is that you step with me into the boundlessness, where constancy,
quietude and peace, infinite emptiness reign. And just imagine, in
this infinite sonorous silence, everywhere is an impenetrable darkness.
Here, we only experience general motion, and at first, we don't
notice the events that we are witnessing. The brilliant light of the sun
always sheds its heat and light on that side of the Earth which is
just then turned towards it. And we stand here in its brilliance. This
is the moon. The moon revolves around the Earth. What is happening?
We suddenly see that the disc of the moon, the disc of the moon, on the Sun's
flaming sphere, makes an indentation, and this indentation, the dark shadow,
grows bigger... and bigger. And as it covers more and more, slowly
only a narrow crescent of the sun remains, a dazzling crescent.
And at the next moment, the next moment - say that it's around one in
the afternoon - a most dramatic turn of event occurs. At that moment the
air suddenly turns cold. Can you feel it? The sky darkens, then goes all dark.
The dogs howl, rabbits hunch down, the deer run in panic, run, stampede
in fright. And in this awful, incomprehensible dusk, even the birds... the birds
too are confused and go to roost. And then... Complete Silence.

This scene, the first of thirty-nine slowly paced shots, is totally magic, particularly in Lars Rudolph's boyishly sweet rendition of Valuska's actions. But while in the original novel, I imagined the scene to be in a dark, fire-lit bar crowded with revelers, Tarr presents us with just a few late drinkers within a rather clean room, awaiting Valuska's arrival. In the fiction Valuska is equally awaited, but is also taunted by some who see him, as do most the townspeople, as a fool, a mentally-disabled being who dreams of the heavens only confirms his idiocy.

Throughout the film, Tarr—despite his grimly black-and-white palette—opens up and orders the landscape of this small town, which, in turn, normalizes it. The gigantic square, with only small groups of men huddled about it, seems far less foreboding than does Krasnahorkai's literary village.

The relationship between Valuska and the noted musical theorist György Eszter (Peter Fitz), is much vaguer here, and the love Eszter feels for the boy remains unspoken in the film until the very end, which invests their friendship with a feeling more of master and servant, rather than mentor and loyal friend. When Eszter is forced to leave the house in order to campaign for his detestable wife, Tünde (here played by Hanna Schygulla) he is not in the least shocked by the filth and debris he suddenly observes; indeed Tarr makes the place looks almost respectable, a town that in summer instead of the middle of cold winter, might possibly be a tourist destination.
Even the truck made of corrugated metal that carries the carcass of a whale into the square seems less menacing than mysterious. Because of the sparseness of the script, in fact, much of the menace and general grubbiness of this world is replaced by a sense of incomprehensibility. In Karasnahorkai's fiction the hidden figure of the Prince, who seems to be at the center of the violence soon to take place, speaks in a high-twittering-voiced, unknown language, but in Tarr's work simply speaks, quite normally, in another language. In short the continued normalization of the original often lends the film an even stranger quality. Why is everybody doing what they are doing? To what purpose? To what end?

This is particularly true of the horrific would-be dictator of the town, Tünde Eszter, who in Tarr's hands seems almost, at first, like an slightly interfering auntie instead of the monster that she is. Her relationship with the Chief of Police is presented less as a disgusting coupling of drunkenness and sex than it is as a kind of quixotic romance. So vaguely is Mrs. Eszter realized in the film that we cannot comprehend what she has in mind by demanding her husband campaign for her causes; certainly we have no way of knowing that it is she who has brought the terrifying circus act to town.

What Tarr does brilliantly convey is the sort of plodding inevitability of the violent riot that takes place. Although he greats everyone cheerfully as he moves through the city, as if all but the strangers in the square were one large family, the heavy booted Valuska stumblingly marches through his days, just as did the drunken oafs in the bar, symbolizing the prosaic pace and beat of life in this place.

When the riot does begin, Tarr portrays it almost as in a Brecht-Weill opera, with the hostile crowds marching meaninglessly through the streets en masse. Whereas in the author's fiction, Valuska himself is caught up in their horrifying actions and himself commits violent crimes, here Valuska simply disappears until after the brutal attack on the hospital and its patients—quite brilliantly depicted in Tarr's work—which literally wears out the assailants.

Just as in the book, Valuska winds up in an insane asylum, but, whereas, in the original he seemed to be forever locked away out of Mrs. Eszter's desire, here the poor boy seems truly to have lost his mind in the violence and its aftermath. Mr. Eszter's visit to him presents him and the viewer with new possibility of redemption for the city that did not exist in Krasznahorkai's fable.

In making these comparisons, I am not necessarily criticizing the film. It is its own work in which the characters and their actions may be far closer to everyday life, and, accordingly, even more horrifying than the grotesques of the fiction. Whereas Andreas Werckmeister's harmonic principles were insistently declared to be wrong in the Krasznahorkai work, in Tarr's hands the harmonies might even be restored with the survival of the beautiful innocence of the town's sacred fool, Valuska, particularly if Eszter, as he promises, will again take him in.

Los Angeles, November 23, 2001

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Federico Fellini | 8 1/2

by Douglas Messerli

Federico Fellini and Ennio Flaiano (story), Ennio Flaiano, Tullo Pinelli, Federico Fellini, and Brunello Rondi (screenplay), Federico Fellini (director) 8 ½ / 1963

One of the most beloved films ever made, Fellini’s 8 ½ might almost be said to have no “story”—or, to be more accurate, it is a film than has hundreds of stories with no plot, which is perhaps what makes it seem so delightfully improvised, a thing discovered in process as opposed to a predetermined product. Of course, that is precisely why some American critics, particularly the deified Pauline Kael, so disliked the film when it first appeared. Kael felt the film was a “structural disaster,” while for me the very mix of forms—dreams, tableaux, memories, operatic acting, contrived sex escapades, and dozens of other genres—are not only what make 8 ½ so rich, but are what energizes it.

Other critics have described the film as Fellini’s most narcissistic product, a observation hard to disagree with. The film, begun as a kind of blank slate during a period where the director was actually suffering a creative block, was given the temporary title, “8 ½,” simply because it was to be his seventh feature film, plus two short segments (adding up to one more), and 1/2 other, a short film co-directed with Alberto Lattuada.

Fellini’s alter-ego, Guido Ansimi (Marcello Mastroianni) has retreated to a spa in the hopes to help cure himself of his director’s block. But the spa, filled with his cronies, old friends, and soon after, his several women—wife, lovers, confidants, etc.—represents a more hectic environment, perhaps, than if he had stayed home. Producers want more information about his “project,” designers want specifics, actresses want to know the characters they will be expected to play. What they don’t know is that is the very roles they are already enacting—their pleas, their declarations, in short, their exaggerations of themselves—will be the substance of Guido’s/Fellini’s “performance.”

If one counts Claudia (Guido’s former actress Claudia Cardinale), Luisa (Guido’s wife, Anouk Aimee), Caria (Guido’s lover), Rossella (Guido’s confidant, Rosella Falk), and other women surrounding him, past and present (Gloria Morin, La Saraghina, Madeleine) along with La signora misteriosa, the "mysterious woman," you could say that Guido has 8 ½ women with whom to cope as well.

The problem is that, although he is much beloved and, because of his talent, is at the center of their lives, Guido, as Claudia sums it up, has never learned how to love:

Claudia: I don’t understand. He meets a girl that can give him
a new life and he pushes her away?
Guido: Because he no longer believes it.
Claudia: Because he doesn’t know how to love.
Guido: Because it isn’t true that a woman can change a man.
Claudia: Because he doesn’t know how to love.
Guido: And above all because I don’t feel like telling another
pile of lies.
Claudia: Because he doesn’t know how to love.

It is hardly Guido’s fault. Pampered and spoiled by the women of his own family as a boy, forced to see women as an evil temptation by his religious teachers (the wonderful pleasures of watching the prostitute, La Saraghina, dance for the young schoolboys, is one of the most beautiful scenes of the film), and hounded by women wanting a role in his movies, Guido has not ever been given a chance to realize how to love anyone, save himself—or the image of himself, which in this film is the same thing.

Guido is also a conflicted being, a man trapped between magic (magic spells such as the childhood phrase “asa nisi Masa,” mind-reading, dream imagery, omens, and other such mysteries) and a man of great logic and psychological insight. These two opposing forces, along with the pulls between art and finance, and all the sexual battles, nearly tear him apart. It is no wonder that much of 8 ½, from its opening scene to its last images, is centered around an attempt to escape, an escape from confining relationships, from ties of society, church, and state, and, finally, an escape from the bounds of earth itself.

Accordingly, Guido has concocted a vague concept that the film he is planning will be of the science fiction genre, and has had his designers build a huge structure that will appear as the launching pad of a rocket into space. Indeed, if you comprehend film as a kind of scientific medium—an application of light, mirrors, and captured images—his work is a kind of science fiction, with the emphasis on the latter. Yet strangely the fictions, the dreams and memories, of this film seem less absurd and surreal than do the narrative “realities,” with its lines of agèd pilgrims waiting for their daily baths, mudpacks, and elixirs of water. The huge stone chairs with large canopy life overhangs seem more like something out of a futuristic world than does the launching pad. His advisors’ and critics’ mumblings and grumblings seem to be words out of some mysterious, religious-like litany that has little to do with everyday life.

One could argue that this kind of surreality of life is at the center of all of Fellini’s films. As Carolyn Brown noted in her memoir about dancing with Merce Cunningham, travelling in the fifties and sixties in Italy, she met people who seemed just like the characters out of La Dolce Vita. Who would have thought, she ponders, that Fellini was, at heart, a realist?

Fellini takes all of this further, however, by transforming his fantasy worlds into a tinsel-town circus, wherein Guido alternates in his roles from trapeze artist, lion tamer, horseback rider, and—the metaphor central to nearly all of Fellini’s works—the clown. By film’s end, despite all the characters’ hurts and frustrations, the players are caught up in the dance of what is, at heart, an ordinary circus act come to town.

That revelation, in fact, is what makes Fellini’s works so human, that permits his films to be simultaneously alien and yet realistically moving. For at heart, we know, we could be part of that show as well, if only we let ourselves go, if only we followed our hearts.

New York, May 7, 2011
Copyright (c) 2011 by International Cinema Review and Douglas Messerli.